Contemporary definition of jhana

There seems to be different interpretation of jhana by different contemporary buddhist teachers. Some of which are outlined by Leigh Brasington here.

I read the suttas and I interpret the meditative states that are experienced in my own practice in the light of the definitions found there, and I have my own understanding, but how does this differ from others?

So my question is:

Is there a standard interpretation of the various jhanas (based on the definitions found in the suttas) that is agreed by all the contributers on this forum?

I ask because otherwise when we start to discuss jhana (such as in this thread) we run the risk of discussing very different things and hence may come to very different understandings.

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Definitely no standard interpretation. This could be one of the most debated and disputed subjects in Buddhism today: “what is jhana?”-- up there with drug/alcohol use and vegetarianism/non-vegetarianism. Listening to others debate about it in my experience is not very helpful. I vote for coming to your own understanding based on your practice and working with that. Or as Thanissaro Bhikkhu advises “Don’t focus on the jhanas, focus on the breath” and let things unfold as they may.

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It’s an interesting but very controversial topic. There’s, though, probably a lot of agreement and overlap on many of the details. However, the EBTs don’t give much in the way of nitty gritty practice details. There are two main meditation manuals: the Visuddhimagga (very influential in Theravada written about 900 years after the Buddha’s death) and a Chinese version of another somewhat earlier manual: the Vimuttimagga. Naturally, there are differences in opinion on how much weight to attach to these (hard to know how faithfully or not these preserve the original tradition). For example, there are the concepts of the nimitta and “acquired image” or “counter image” in these manuals, which don’t really appear in the EBTs. Are these a later development or an oral preservation of the original tradition up to the time these manuals were written down?

There’s not a lot of practice details in the EBTs. Many viewpoints on the controversial issues pivot on a handful of or even just one sutta (sometimes over the exact meanings of a single Pali word). The earliness of some of these suttas is sometimes not even clear or is disputed. There are a few extremely lengthy “jhana war” threads over on dhammawheel.com that I actually waded through at one stage. You could probably compress and summarize those arguments down to two or three pages.

I’m kind of neutral on the topic. Most of the arguments on both sides on most of the points of disagreement don’t entirely convince me, and I’d even wonder if there’s enough data in the Nikayas to definitively settle these questions; it’s possible some of the original practice details have simply been lost. However, frankk here seems to be busy putting together an exhaustive and definitive list of all jhana related references in the EBTs, which has the potential to throw some light on those questions, e.g. threw up some interesting references in a thread today.

I’ve actually wondered several times if a short summary of the main 4 or 5 points of contention might be useful (plus many of the points of agreement). Given the contentious nature of the topic, perhaps something with roughly the structure of a referendum information leaflet might work best (seriously! :wink: ), fairly laying out the arguments and relevant suttas on both sides of each point of contention (and setting out the best evidence for each side, with perhaps further counterpoints as well) and leaving the reader to weigh the evidence themselves or investigate further themselves if inclined. I’d imagine this could be done in only two or three pages.

I think it’s the kind of topic where different people will reasonably come to different conclusions based on the very same data. I actually think some of these points of contention probably don’t matter a great deal (though some would be nice to have an answer to).

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Yes.
Sutta Jhana is standard.
That is what I used and followed.

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And the descriptions are very consistent.

Having said that Abhidhamma Jhana got a slight variation but it is not significant.

Nope. And if you look at how meditation teachers describe jhana, you won’t find two who are teaching the exact same thing (barring some sort of student-teacher arrangement, of course).

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Hi @SarathW1, @DKervick

I wonder if I could tease this out a little. If I take two well known (on the internet) teachers from what seems like similar (maybe the same) traditions, Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Ajahn Brahm. They both claim to teach jhana as specified in the suttas. So, for example:

(It seems to me that) I find that TB teaches being able to feel the body and practice mindfulness while in first jhana:

Now, when you’re with the body as a whole, you’re very much in the present moment. You’re right there all the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana — in which the body is filled with bright awareness — is the point where mindfulness and equanimity become pure. So there should be no problem in combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that gets very settled and still. In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation: (1) being aware of long breathing, (2) being aware of short breathing, (3) being aware of the whole body as you breathe in and breathe out, and then (4) calming the sensation of the breath within the body. This, as the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness practice. It’s also a basic concentration practice. You’re getting into the first jhana — Right Concentration — right there, at the same time that you’re practicing Right Mindfulness. – from The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness

whereas AB suggests that you can’t:

The ‘doer’ is silent before entering Jhana but it is still there. Inside Jhana, the ‘doer’ is completely gone. The `knower’ is still functioning, you are fully aware, but all the controls are now beyond reach. You cannot even form a single thought, let alone make a decision … … Furthermore, you should know that while in any Jhana it is impossible to experience the body … – from The Basic Method of Meditation.

AB seems to be saying that it is only when you emerge from jhana that it is possible to engage in mindfulness practices, in fact the suggestion seems to be that jhana is the cause for powerful mindfulness to arise in the same way that sleep is a cause for wakefulness to arise.

This seems to have a very big impact on how vitakka/vicara are interpreted - either in TBs case as directed thought & evaluation or in ABs case as mounting and remaining on the object of meditation (a slight wobble in the mind).

Both of these seem to be quite different interpretations of the definitions given in the suttas. Is there a way to clear this up?

I’m wondering if the new sutta translations by @sujato will point towards a standard definition that can be used by this community?

I haven’t waded through the different definitions of jhanas by various teachers but I wonder if it would be useful if there is any agreement (rather than the bits that people disagree on) to be ferreted.

I think all would agree that:

Jhanas are free from the 1) the Five hindrances (craving, aversion, restlessness and regret, laziness and sleepiness, doubt)
2) immoral (askusala) thoughts

…and that the first jhana contain the following (despite their definitions):

  1. vitakka : variable definitions
  2. vicara : variable definitions
  3. piti : joy/rapture
  4. sukha: bliss

I wonder if people would agree that there is a degree of samadhi present in a jhana; or that it requires some form of meditation? :slight_smile:

with metta

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The way I understand when you practice Jhana you attain Samadhi.
ie: As per simile in the previous post. if we sleep enough (Jhana) you will awake (Samadhi)

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What AB’s and Ven. T’s description of Jhana is double Dutch to me.
Stick with Sutta. They are very simple to understand.

Ok, but how do you understand samadhi?

with metta

As you said in your post, you know that you have eliminated five hindrances. The process of eliminating five hindrances is called Jhana which lead to Samadhi. (one-pointedness and equanimity)

The way I see it: the process of suppressing the five hindrances, can with some more meditation, lead to jhana. The process isnt jhana itself, it leads to the arising of the first jhana, which is specific state. Samadhi is a quality o the mind that gradually builds up reaching a peak in the jhanas.

with metta

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It is like riding a bike from A to B.
When you ride the bike you also move the bike together.

What is ‘you’ and what is the ‘bike’, in your simile? Also what is meant by ‘A’ and ‘B’?

with metta

What I am trying to say is that Jhana and Samadhi are inseparable.

Jhana do have samadhi as a quality in them -I wonder if this is in doubt as well. But Samadhi is broader than only jhana according to this suttta:

"Monks, these are the four developments of concentration. Which four? AN4.41

with metta

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OK. So I’m finding the suttas on this a little difficult to understand too.

As an example…

At a certain point the meditation object fades away or stops (depending on the object - breath or mantra). At this point the body is no longer discernible, there is no discernible sensory input or thinking (verbal or sub-verbal) thoughts, but it’s prior to the bit where a bright light appears in the mind (even if eyes are closed and its a dark room, so the light can’t be external eye base).

In your understanding of the suttas, would this be at some point prior to first jhana, at first jhana or at a jhana further along the sequence or even one of the immaterial absorption’s? If you have a specific sutta reference that helps in this understanding that would be great as it would give me a touch point to map my experiences with the suttas descriptions.

This is just an example of something that I can’t understand from what is said in the suttas (that I have read so far), and there seem to be different opinions from contemporary teachers.

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If what you mean by “thinking thoughts” is vitakka/vicara, then having them gone completely is a sign of second jhana.

Lights are very likely the result of the general characteristics of the visual system (such as phosphenes, a very common entoptic phenomenon) being paired with meditations resembling sensory deprivation.

For example, a lot of ancient rock art depicts common phosphene patterns. So, I’d say that Stone Age jhana can be pretty neat, but it’s not too important.

Well, here’s one more!

:upside_down_face:

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